Like most people, the first point at which I realised that the polls had got it badly wrong was when I woke up last Friday morning. To say it was a surprise is an understatement, but it was as nothing compared to some of the social media activity that got my attention during the day. It reached its apogee with the excoriating observation that faith without works is dead, so Christians who voted Conservative have a dead faith. Apparently a vote for Labour was a vote for God’s work. When someone started offering a ministry of healing and reconciliation for toxic Christians who voted anything other than Labour, I turned off my computer and went to weed my garden.*
So I was interested to read this week that Archbishop Cranmer also found the views of some Christians problematic, including that of Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian. Fraser is, apparently, ashamed to belong to a country which has become so insular, self-absorbed and selfish that we no longer care for the vulnerable. But to think that voting Labour is the only Christian option is to completely miss the point of Christians’ involvement in society. Christians across the political spectrum should all be wrestling with the question of how we bring the gospel of Christ to a secular, materialist world that resents the presence of religion in the public square, but the answers we find aren’t limited to one political party.
The problem with embracing politics as the answer is where this leaves the gospel. Jesus was working class and poor. He lived under one of the most violent and oppressive military regimes that the world has ever known. His society, like many others, was full of holes that people fell through. Yet he didn’t set up social reform programmes. He didn’t formulate social mobility policies based on the premise that education is the route out of poverty. He didn’t oppose the fabulous wealth of Caesar’s government, its extensive reach or its immense power. In fact, the nearest he came to making a political statement was in telling people to pay their taxes, even though they were crippling. He was about a different business – his Father’s work of building the kingdom of God.
Christ was political only in that he went where people were and got involved with their lives. He built relationships. He met people’s needs. He acted with compassion. He spoke truth to power. But he didn’t do so just to give physical healing or to provoke social reform. He made it clear, when he was talking to the woman at the well just outside the town of Samaria, that her spiritual need far outweighed her physical need. And that is our role as Christians in our communities. It’s not just to be compassionate in meeting physical need, it’s to show people their spiritual need and to talk about the kingdom of God. We must offer something distinctive, something different, otherwise we offer nothing more than a social welfare programme. And somebody needs to speak truth to power, both from inside and outside of all political parties.
As a Christian, I failed to get excited about politicians courting the Christian vote prior to the election, because I think they were only interested for two reasons. Firstly, all parties had plans such as the expansion child care, knowing full well that there is no money and that it will depend on voluntary groups to deliver the promise – if the past is anything to go by, that will be mostly Christian groups. As well as propping up state policies, politicians are also keen for Christian social involvement because it props up the Judeo-Christian culture without them having to defend it themselves. My problem is with the limitations that the government then wants to impose: don’t teach creation and you must teach about LGBTI rights even if same-sex marriage conflicts with your moral conviction. They want it every which way – get involved, but wear a muzzle. For Christians, social capital must be second to spiritual capital and no government can cash in on just one.
So how do we offer something different? I think by realising that political parties and institutions, like democracy itself, are human constructs – ones that we must work within, but ones which are nevertheless human and flawed. Of themselves, they will never bring anything more than transient change. Only the person of Jesus offers transformation and it is the person of Jesus that we should be witnessing to through our lives and our social engagement, always being ‘prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (I Peter 3:15).
And it is that living hope (1 Peter 1:3) which should be our focus. The kingdom of God is already in our midst (Luke 17:20-21). It’s not only the poor and the oppressed who need to see the love of God in action – it’s also the rich, the middle class, the bankers, the self-confident, the self-sufficient, the healthy, the people who hold power and yes, the people who vote Conservative. God is at work in all of his people and his kingdom has room for them all.
Unlike Giles Fraser, I’m not ashamed to live in England, because I don’t think we are a selfish, insular nation. I see the love of God at work through people of faith and people of none; people who care about their society and its communities. I see people who went out onto the streets to clean up after the 2011 riots; people who helped complete strangers during the floods; people who give to food banks and charities week after week, and people who give to one international disaster appeal after another without any sign of compassion fatigue. People who care are distributed across society – caring isn’t the exclusive province of any particular group.
As Christians, however, we shouldn’t be working for an improved society but for a transformed one. We should be working to show the love of God to those around us at whatever is the point of their need. It’s the transformation of people as they join the kingdom of God that will utterly transform society. Christ is already Lord of the universe and everyone in it (Ephesians 4:6). Our role is to introduce people to the God to whom they already belong. For some that will be through political involvement, but to believe that any single political ideology will solve social problems is to deny the Lordship of Christ over his world and our role in building his kingdom through spiritual engagement.
*Just for the record, this wasn’t a personal reaction based on my political views, merely disappointment at the Twitter traffic which, on Friday morning, was coming from a single direction. The point of this blog is that political parties of any colour shouldn’t be the answer, just different vehicles through which we work for a common purpose.